One of my favorite vintage cookbooks I’ve ever owned is “The Shaker Cookbook: Not by Bread Alone,” by Caroline B. Piercy. It’s exactly the kind of cookbook I love: equal parts anthropological study, memoir, and cookbook. Not only do you learn about Piercy’s childhood near some remaining Shaker settlements, but you also learn about the culture and purpose surrounding each recipe. For starters, each recipe is named after the woman who created it. My favorite so far is “Sister Amelia’s strawberry flummery.” I’m not really sure what a flummery is, but isn’t that just the most darling, lyrical name? But back to Sister Harriet’s Coffee Cake. Coffee cake is a bit of a misnomer; it’s more of a coffee brioche, or viennoiserie, made from a risen yeast dough and topped with a spicy brown sugar blend. The resulting cake is perfect with coffee at breakfast as it’s not too sweet and so simple. A hearty wedge with salted butter and a little honey is how I imagine Sister Harriet may have enjoyed it. There’s a bit of effort, in that you have to prep the dough the day before, but it’s not too technique driven or difficult. This recipe would also make delicious cinnamon buns, so feel free to play around with the recipe if you like.
Adapted from “The Shaker Cookbook: Not by Bread Alone,” by Caroline B. Piercy.
3/4 packet dry active yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
4 cups flour
1/4 cup butter
3 eggs, beaten
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, for brushing
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, grated
Dissolve yeast in warm water and add enough flour to work into a soft ball in your hands, about 2 1/2 cups. Cover with a damp cloth and let it stand for an hour.
In a mixer with the dough hook attached, combine the remaining flour, butter, slightly beaten eggs, salt, and sugar on medium speed. Knead until it becomes a smooth lump, about 5 minutes. Add the ball of yeast and continue kneading the whole mass until it is light and spongy (about 10 minutes). Place in a greased container, covered, and let rise on the counter until double in size (about 3-4 hours).
Turn it out onto the counter and knead a few times, then put it back into the container and let it rise in the fridge over night (at least 12 hours).
Preheat oven to 400F
Work the dough into a buttered 9 inch skillet or cake tin. Let it rise for an hour; brush with melted butter and sprinkle generously with brown sugar and spices. Bake for about 30 minutes. As Piercy says, “This is well worth the trouble.”